Who Is My Neighbor?

By Maureen Juhas and Barbara Matusiak

In 1989, our parish, Saint Joseph’s, was established in Chicago’s far-western DuPage County suburbs, a rapidly-growing area of around one million people which, at the time, had only three Orthodox churches. Initially, we met in the cafeteria of a public school in Naperville, Illinois—a situation which made it possible for us to develop a strong Church School program since we had use of several classrooms. Religious education for children was one of our major priorities when the community was established, as much of DuPage County consists of young families, many from out-of-state, with children.

In establishing our Church School program, we decided that we would try to the best of our ability to include outreach and evangelization ministries into the educational experience. For example, instead of merely discussing the need to help the poor, we took our teens to spend a day working at a homeless shelter or, on another occasion, to serve meals at a soup kitchen. After accomplishing these tasks, we spent a few hours discussing their experience, their understandings of how this fulfills the expectations of Jesus Christ, and their impressions of ways such ministries help the Orthodox Church make an impact on the community in which it exists.

By 1993 we had outgrown our temporary quarters at the public school and we began searching for a facility of our own. This was a difficult task, since real estate in DuPage County is extraordinarily expensive. After several months of searching, we located a former Methodist Episcopal church in neighboring Wheaton, Illinois, across the street from Wheaton College and the Billy Graham Center. The very location of this property underscored the importance of witnessing and reaching out to the wider community. We purchased the church and the adjacent house on the afternoon of Holy Thursday, 1994; four hours later, we celebrated our first service, Matins of Great and Holy Friday with the Reading of the Passion Gospels, in our new home.

First Encounter With Orthodoxy

A few Sundays later, we noticed a group of eight or nine adults, most with Downs Syndrome, coming into the church. Our greeters welcomed them and were told by their chaperone that they lived three houses down from the church. In an arrangement with a local agency, these individuals were living in an independent yet supervised situation as an alternative to institutionalized living. At first, our visitors seemed confused by what they were seeing. For years they would periodically come to the church when it was owned by the Methodist Episcopal congregation. Undoubtedly they expected to find something familiar; instead, they had their first encounter with Orthodoxy and were not sure of how to react, especially when they encountered the deacon who was censing before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.

“I don’t want to say here,” one of the visiting women said in a somewhat loud voice. By the time the congregation began singing the first antiphon, however, the chaperone and one of our greeters had calmed her down. She was given a Liturgy book and encouraged to sing along. Within ten or fifteen minutes, most of the visitors were making an attempt at singing and, by the middle of the Liturgy, they seemed to be enthralled by everything that was going on. When it was time for Holy Communion, one of the male visitors, also with Downs Syndrome, got in line for the chalice and we learned he was, in fact, an Orthodox Christian—something which we had suspected because, throughout the Liturgy, he made the sign of the Cross at the appropriate times and, despite his disability and speech, sang along with the congregation from memory!

After the Liturgy, many people welcomed the visitors and invited them to Fellowship Hour, after which their chaperone lined them up and walked them home.

For our Sunday School students, the visit of these neighbors generated many questions, and for many students it was their first encounter with individuals with Downs Syndrome. Our pastor and Sunday School staff used the occasion to initiate a series of lessons on how we are called by God to care for others and to share the Good News of the risen Christ.

Outreach Activities Initiated

During the next few months, as our community began to settle into its new surroundings, several outreach activities were initiated. One of our older classes assisted the Wheaton Historical Society in organizing a display of Orthodox icons during the Christmas season. The icons, which included dozens of original 18th and 19th century and contemporary pieces, were on display at the Society’s headquarters in the center of Wheaton and generated a great deal of interest.

Our pastor also accepted several invitations to speak on Orthodoxy to classes at the Billy Graham Center and neighboring seminaries. Our teens hosted visits to our church by youth from other area churches who wanted to learn more about Orthodoxy and who were delighted to witness Orthodox worship in the English language. Many students from Wheaton College began visiting our church, often in fulfillment of requirements for courses in which they were enrolled. Many would mention how their visit changed the stereotypes of Orthodoxy they had had or, in a few cases, had been taught! [The most common comment was to our pastors and deacon: “We thought all of you were old with real long beards and big tall hats!”]

One student, so impressed with the church’s iconography, pursued writing a major paper on iconography and spent a great deal of time interviewing our clergy and members of our parish’s iconography class. [Her paper, incidentally, focused on the preservation of the Orthodox iconographic tradition during the communist era, a topic which required a great deal of original research and investigation.]

During the first year in our new home, our parishioners also mounted efforts to collect food and clothing for local agencies and needy in the immediate area of the church. Our goal of generating a visible Orthodox presence in an area which traditionally had little or no Orthodox presence whatsoever was being pursued, and many new people, some Orthodox, others interested in becoming Orthodox, began coming to our church.

Inviting The Neighbors To A Brunch

During this same period, a few of the visitors with Downs Syndrome began coming to the Liturgy every six or seven weeks, including the woman who originally wanted to leave, and the Orthodox man. Our younger Church School classes decided that, a few weeks after Pascha, 1995, they would like to invite all the residents of the home to Liturgy and to serve them a brunch. Everyone—our clergy, teachers, students and parents—got behind the effort. Invitations were sent out. Menus were developed. An entertaining program was developed, and several of our students with musical talent came forward and volunteered to play instruments or lead sing-a-longs. One class made mini-Paschal baskets, using plastic strawberry containers, containing dyed eggs, miniature breads, and candy, and delivered them to the home’s residents, along with the invitations to the brunch, on Pascha. The home’s chaperone graciously accepted the invitation on behalf of those in his charge.

Two Sundays later, our visitors, numbering over a dozen, left their residence down the street and came to our church in a neat, single-file line. Our students greeted and welcomed them, and after the Liturgy they were ushered into the Church Hall for brunch. After our pastor blessed the food—visitors and students alike prayed the Lord’s Prayer—the students served their guests delicious sandwiches an a variety of salads, and each guest was surrounded by two or three students who engaged them in conversation. After everyone had enjoyed the meal, the program began with welcoming remarks, and the visitors enjoyed singing along to several songs led by the students. Other musical presentations were offered, and the festive mood continued until it was time for the visitors to depart. Paper icon prints and other souvenirs accompanied each departing guest, along with Paschal cards made by the children. The program was purposely kept short, yet varied, out of sensitivity four our guest’s situation and attention level.

The children escorted the guests back to their residence and invited them to visit again soon.

Reflecting On The Special Neighbors

The following week, during the regular Church School session, the children discussed the visit and how they felt about reaching out to our special neighbors. “It made me feel good to know that we were helping them,” said one six-year-old student. “It was a chance for us to do what Christ expects of us,” said one of this classmates. “It made me feel good to serve them” said one 11-year-old girl. “I kept remembering that I was really serving Jesus Christ.”

Since then, our parish has “adopted” the residents of the group home down the street, and the director of the sponsoring organization has been most grateful for our involvement. Some of the residents continue to attend our services every few weeks, and the woman mentioned earlier who did not want to stay now signs along with almost every hymn! Of all our outreach ministries, this is the most rewarding, for we are not only sharing our faith with others who many would consider to be among “the least of the brethren,” but we are allowing them to bring the presence of Christ into our midst in a very special way.

Barbara Matusiak, wife of Fr. John Matusiak, is on the youth ministry team of Saint Joseph’s Orthodox Christian Church, Wheaton, Illinois, where her husband is founding pastor.

Maureen Juhas, another parish youth minister, also serves as Chicago Deanery youth coordinator. Both Barbara and Maureen are also nurses.